Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday defended a non-binary Navy officer Tuesday against criticism from Republicans who have used a video of the officer describing their first deployment to question the sea service’s warfighting priorities.
In a video that the Navy Judge Advocate General Corps posted to its Instagram account earlier this month, Lt. j.g. Audrey Knutson described participating in an LGBTQ spoken-word night while deployed aboard the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford and sharing a personally written poem with the ship.
Knutson, who identified as non-binary in the video, called the experience the “culmination of the whole deployment.”
“I’ll tell you why I’m particularly proud of this sailor,” Gilday said. “Her grandfather served during World War II, and he was gay, and he was ostracized in the very institution that she not only joined and is proud to be a part of, but she volunteered to deploy on Ford. And she’ll likely deploy again next month when Ford goes back to sea.”
The video had prompted Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who has never served in the military, to tweet Wednesday that, “While China prepares for war this is what they have our @USNavy focused on.”
Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville, a former college football coach from Alabama, weighed in on the matter during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday, claiming that he had “a lot of problems with this video” and how the junior officer described the spoken-word night and poetry reading as the highlight of the deployment.
“I hope we train our officers to prioritize their sailors, not themselves,” Tuberville told Gilday at the hearing. “Did it surprise you that a junior officer says the highlight of her deployment — her first and the ship’s first — was about herself and her own achievement?”
Neither Gilday nor Tuberville used “they/their” pronouns to describe Knutson, though a LinkedIn and Instagram account with the same name and photo similar to Knutson’s JAG post identified as they/their/them.
Gilday pushed back, explaining that the Navy asks people from all over the country and from all different backgrounds to serve. He said that it’s the responsibility of the commanding officer to “build a cohesive warfighting team that is going to follow the law, and the law requires that we be able to conduct prompt, sustained operations at sea.”
“That level of trust that a commanding officer develops across that unit has to be grounded on dignity and respect,” Gilday said. “And so, if that officer can lawfully join the United States Navy, is willing to serve, and willing to take the same oath that you and I took to put their life on the line, then I’m proud to serve beside them.”
Tuberville said he takes issue with the “obsession” with race, sex and gender because he claimed it is “focused on self, it’s not focused on team.”
“And to do a poem with all that, 8,000 other people on the ship and to focus on herself,” Tuberville said. “And don’t get me wrong, her uncle or whoever that fought – my dad died in the military. Okay. I’m all for that. But I’m all for building the machine. Our recruiting is suffering. We don’t need to have another Bud Light moment.”
Tuberville appeared to reference Bud Light’s recent sponsorship of TikTok influencer Dylan Mulvaney, a transgender woman and transgender activist, that has prompted a backlash against the beer by some Americans.
Tuberville’s father is a World War II veteran, and the recipient of five Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart, according to Tuberville’s official biography.
Rubio’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Navy Times on Gilday’s remarks.
In February, Rubio introduced legislation into the Senate called the Ensuring Military Readiness Act, which would bar most “persons who identify as transgender with a history of diagnosis of gender dysphoria” from serving in the military, with a few exceptions. Tuberville is an original co-sponsor of the measure, which was also introduced in the House by Republican Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana.
“The military has strict standards for who can and cannot qualify to serve. For example, under President Biden, you can’t serve with a peanut allergy,” Rubio said in a statement in February. “Biden has turned our military into a woke social experiment. It is a stupid way to go about protecting our nation. We need to spend more time thinking about how to counter threats like China, Russia, and North Korea and less time thinking about pronouns.”
The Ford departed Naval Station Norfolk in October for a brief service-retained deployment that lasted just under two months, and included approximately 80 percent of a full carrier air wing. That deployment placed the carrier under the authority of Gilday instead of a geographic combatant commander, as is the standard. The carrier is slate to conduct a full-length deployment later this year.
Operations in the fall were designed to familiarize the crew with the vessel’s new technologies, as the strike group focused on air defense, anti-subsurface warfare, and distributed maritime operations. The operations also provided an opportunity to work with six other NATO allies.
The Ford, which was originally scheduled to deploy in 2018, wrapped up its Composite Training Unit Exercise required to deploy on April 2, where it worked to integrate carrier strike group elements as a cohesive force, according to the Navy. The exercise also marked the first time the carrier was embarked with a full carrier air wing.
The Ford has a crew of approximately 5,500 sailors, including those assigned to the ship, air wings and other staff members, according to the Navy.